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Shakespeares Champion

Charlaine Harris

  Chapter One

  I grumbled to myself as I slid out of my Skylark, Marshall's keys clinking in my hand. Since I made my living doing favors for people, it hardly seemed fair to be doing a favor for free this early in the morning.

  But this fall a flu epidemic was scything its way through Shakespeare. It had crept into the Body Time gym enclosed in the body of my friend Raphael Roundtree. Raphael had coughed and sneezed in karate class after working out in the weights room, neatly distributing the virus among almost all the Body Time clientele, with the exception of the aerobics class.

  And me. Viruses don't seem to be able to abide in my body.

  When I'd dropped by Marshall Sedaka's rented house even earlier that morning, Marshall had been at that stage of the flu where his greatest desire was to be left alone to his misery. So fit and healthy that he took sickness as an insult, Marshall was a terrible patient; and he was vain enough to hate my seeing him throw up. So he'd thrust the keys to Body Time into my hand, slammed the door, and yelled from behind it, "Go open! Tanya's coming after her first class if I can't get anyone else!"

  I'd been left with my mouth hanging open and a handful of keys.

  It was my day to work at the Drinkwaters' house. I had to be there between 8:00 and 8:15, when the Drinkwaters left for work. It was now 7:00. Tanya, a student at the nearby Montrose branch of the University of Arkansas, might get out of her first class at 9:00. That would put her arrival time at somewhere around 9:40.

  But Marshall was sometimes my lover and also sometimes my workout partner; and he was always my sensei, my karate instructor.

  I'd blown air out of my mouth to make the curls at my forehead fluff, and driven out to Body Time. I'd decided I'd just unlock the gym and leave. The same people came every morning, and they could be trusted to work out alone. Most days, I was one of them.

  Marshall's almost incoherent appeal for help had come when I had been dressing to leave for the gym, as a matter of fact, and I was already in my sweats. I could go to work at the Drinkwaters' as I was, though I hated beginning my earning day without having showered and put on makeup.

  I don't like breaks in my routine. My job depends on the clock. Two and a half hours at the Drinkwaters' house, a tenor fifteen-minute gap, another house; that's my day and my income.

  Body Time is in a somewhat isolated position on the bypass that swerves around Shakespeare, allowing speedier access from the south to the university at Montrose. Marshall's gym has a large graveled parking lot and big plate-glass windows at the front, which are covered by Venetian blinds lowered at six on winter afternoons, four in the summer. There was already a car in the parking lot, a battered Camaro. I expected to see some impatient enthusiast waiting in its front seat, but the car was empty. I walked over, cast a cursory look over the car's clean interior. It told me nothing. I shrugged, and crunched across the gravel in the chilly, pale early morning light, fumbling through Marshall's keys. As I sorted through them to find the one marked FD for front door, another vehicle pulled up beside mine. Bobo Winthrop, eighteen and chock-full of hormones, emerged from his fully equipped Jeep.

  I clean for Bobo's mother Beanie. I have always liked Bobo despite the fact that he is beautiful, smart enough to scrape by, and has everything he has ever expressed a wish for. Somehow Bobo had charmed his way into Marshall's good graces, probably by working out on as demanding a schedule as Marshall himself. When Bobo had decided to start college in nearby Montrose, Marshall had finally agreed to hire the boy to work a few hours a week at Body Time.

  Since Bobo isn't hurting for money, I can only figure his job motivation is getting to ogle many women of all ages in form-fitting outfits and getting to see all his friends, who naturally all have memberships in Body Time.

  Bobo was running his fingers through his floppy fair hair by way of grooming. He said groggily, "Whatcha doin', Lily?"

  "Trying to find the right key," I said, with a certain edge to my voice.

  "This is it. " A long finger attached to a huge hand nudged one key out of the cluster. Bobo gave a jaw-cracking yawn.

  "Thanks. " I put the key in the lock, but as I did I felt the door move a little.

  "It's unlocked," I said, hearing my voice come out sharp. I was now really uneasy. The back of my neck began to prickle.

  "Del's already here. That's his car," Bobo said calmly. "But he's supposed to lock the front door when he's here by himself. Marshall's gonna be mad. "

  The gloom in the big room was pronounced. Shades still closed, all lights off.

  "He must be in the tanning bed," Bobo said, and kept going across the room as I flipped on the central panel of lights with one hand. I reached for the ringing phone with the other.

  "Body Time," I said sharply, my eyes ranging from side to side. Something smelled wrong.

  "I was able to get Bobo after you left," Marshall said weakly. "He can stay, Lily. I don't want you to miss work. Oops. Gotta . . . " He slammed down the phone.

  I'd almost told Marshall something was wrong. But that would have been pointless, worrying him until I found out what was making the skin of my neck crawl.

  I'd only switched on the central panel of lights, so the sides of the big room were still dark. Bobo had begun turning on lights and opening doors in the rear of the building. So I was by myself when I noticed the man lying on the bench in the far left corner.

  I didn't for one minute think he was asleep, not with the barbell across his neck. His arms were dangling awkwardly, his legs spraddled. There was a stain. There were lots of stains.

  I was scrabbling at the switch plate behind me, trying not to take my eyes off that still figure, when Bobo came from the hall that led to Marshall's office, the tanning beds, and the karate and aerobics room.

  "Hey, Lily, you like Natural Morning Zap Tea? I didn't see Del, but I found this bag in Marshall's office. . . "

  My fingers located the light switch for the left side of the room, and as Bobo looked to see what I was staring at, I flicked it up.

  "Aw, shit," said Bobo. We both stared at what was lying on the bench. We could see it all too clearly now.

  Bobo scuttled sideways until he was behind me, looking over the top of my head. He put his hands on my shoulders, more to keep me firmly between him and It than to comfort me. "Aw. . . shit," he said again, gulping ominously. Just at that moment, Bobo came down hard on the "boy" side of eighteen.

  I had already encountered two nauseated males and it wasn't even seven o'clock.

  "I've got to go check," I said. "If you're going to throw up, go outside. "

  "Check what? He's dead as a doornail," said Bobo, his big hands anchoring me firmly on his side of the service counter.

  "Who is it, you reckon? Del?" Possibly I was stalling.

  "Yeah, from the clothes. That's what Mr. Packard was wearing last night. "

  "You left him here by himself?" I asked as I began walking over to the body on the bench.

  "He was doing chest when I left. He had his own key, to lock up. Marshall had told me that was okay. And Mr. Packard said he had a spotter coming," Bobo said defensively. "I had a date, and it was closing time. " Bobo's voice got stronger and angrier as he saw he was going to have to justify leaving Del alone in the gym. At least he didn't sound nauseated anymore.

  I finally got to the corner. It had been a long journey. Before I got there, I took a deep breath, held it, and bent over to check Del's wrist. I had never touched Del alive, and I didn't want to do it now that he was dead, but if there was any chance there was a spark of life l
eft. . .

  His skin felt strange, rubbery, or it might have been my imagination. The smell was not my imagination, nor was the lack of pulse. To make absolutely sure, I held my big watch in front of Del's nostrils. There were trails of dried blood running from them. I bit my lip hard, forced myself to hold still a moment. When I pulled my arm back to my side, the watch face was clear. I found myself backing up for the first two feet, as if it would be irreverent or dangerous to turn my back on poor Del Packard. I hadn't been scared of him when I'd been able to talk to him. It was absurd to be nervous around him now. But I had to tell myself that several times.

  I picked up the phone again and punched in some numbers. I looked up at Bobo while I waited for the ring. He was staring at the body in the corner with a horrified fascination. Perhaps this was the first dead person he'd ever seen. I reached over and patted the back of his big hand, lying on the counter. He turned it over and clutched my fingers.

  "Umhum," rumbled a deep voice at the other end of the line.

  "Claude," I said.

  "Lily," he said, warm and relaxed.

  "I'm at Body Time. " I gave him a minute to switch gears.

  "Okay," Claude said cautiously. I could hear a creaking of bedsprings as the big policeman sat up in bed.

  Maybe if I took this step by step it wouldn't be so bad? I glanced over at the still figure on the bench.

  No way to ease up to this. I'd just plunge right in.

  "Del Packard is here, and he got squashed," I said.

  I did make it to my first job on time, but I was still in my workout sweats, and still barefaced. So I was uncomfortable, and disinclined to do more than nod by way of greeting Helen and Mel Drinkwater. They weren't chatty people either, and Helen didn't like to see me work; she just liked seeing the results. She'd been giving me hard looks, since September when I'd been sucked into a notorious brawl in the Burger Tycoon parking lot - but she hadn't said anything, and she hadn't fired me.

  I'd decided that she'd passed the point of most concern. Her pleasure in a clean house had outweighed her misgivings about my character.

  Today the Drinkwaters went out their kitchen door at a pretty sharp clip, each sliding into a car to begin his/her own workday, and I was able to start my usual routine.

  Helen Drinkwater doesn't want to pay me to do a total cleaning job on the whole house, which is a turn-of-the-century two-story. She pays me for two and a half hours, long enough to change the sheets, do the bathrooms and kitchen, dust, gather up the trash, and vacuum. I do a quick pickup first because it makes everything easier. The Drinkwaters are not messy, but their grandchildren live just down the street, and they are. I patrolled the house for scattered toys and put them all in the basket Helen keeps by the fireplace. Then I pulled on rubber gloves and trotted up to the main bathroom, to start scrubbing and dusting my way through the house. No pets, and the Drinkwaters washed and hung up their clothes and did their own dishes. By the time I rewound the cord on the vacuum cleaner, the house was looking very good. I pocketed my check on the way out. Helen always leaves it on the kitchen counter with the salt shaker on top of it, as if some internal wind would blow it away otherwise. This time she'd anchored down a note, too. "We need to pick a Wednesday for you to do the downstairs windows," said Helen's spiky handwriting.

  Wednesday is the morning I reserve for unusual jobs, like helping with someone's spring cleaning, or doing windows, or occasionally mowing a yard. I looked at the calendar by the phone, picked two Wednesdays that would do, and wrote both dates on the bottom of the note with a question mark.

  I deposited the check in the bank on my way home for lunch. Claude was walking up my driveway when I arrived.

  Chief of Police Claude Friedrich lives next door to me, in the Shakespeare Garden Apartments. My small house is a little downhill from the apartments, and separated from the tenants' parking lot by a high fence. As I unlocked my front door, I felt Claude's big hand rubbing my shoulder. He likes to touch me, but I have put off any more intimate relationship with the chief; so his touches have to have a locker-room context.

  "How was it after I left?" I asked, walking through the living room to the kitchen. Claude was right behind me, and when I turned to look up at him he wrapped his arms around me. I felt the tickle of his mustache against my face as his lips drifted across my cheek to fasten on a more promising target. Claude was my good friend but he wanted to be my lover, too.

  "Claude, let me go. "

  "Lily, when are you going to let me spend the night?" he asked quietly, no begging or whining in his voice because Claude is not a begging or whining man.

  I turned sharply so my face was to the refrigerator. I could feel the muscles in my neck and shoulders tighten. I made myself hold still. Claude's hands dropped to his sides. I got out some leftover dishes and opened the microwave, moving slowly, trying not to show my agitation with jerky gestures.

  When the microwave was humming, I turned to face Claude, looking up at his face. Claude is in his mid-forties, ten years or more older than I, and he has graying brown hair and a permanent tan. After years of working in dark corners of Little Rock and dark places in people's hearts, Claude has a few wrinkles, deep and decisive wrinkles, and a massive calm that must be his way of keeping sane.

  "Do you want me?" he asked me now.

  I hated being backed into a corner. And there wasn't a simple answer to the question.

  He touched my hair with gentle fingers.

  "Claude. " I enjoyed saying his name, unlovely as it was. I wanted to lay my hands on each side of his face and return his kiss. I wanted him to walk out and never come back. I wanted him not to want me. I had liked having a friend.

  "You know I'm just used to living my own life," was what I said.

  "Is it Sedaka?"

  Oh, hell. I hated this. Marshall and I had been dating and bedding for months. Under Claude's scrutiny, I grew even more tense. Without my conscious direction, my hand crept under the neck of my sweatshirt, rubbing the scars.